The Ripon Forum

Volume 47, No. 1

Winter 2013 Issue

The Citizenship Premium

By on August 12, 2014 with 0 Comments

Some Considerations for the Current Debate on Legalization


msumptionrf_275x275Legalization for the United States’ 11 million unauthorized immigrants has shot to the top of the immigration policy agenda in recent months. With a tentatively emerging consensus on the need to implement some kind of legalization, much of the discussion has focused not on whether to provide legal status, but what form this status should take. And, most notably, whether it should give the newly legalized full permanent residence and thus a stepping stone to U.S. citizenship. 

The term “path to citizenship” is rather misleading. None of the proposals on the table would guarantee that newly legalized individuals can become citizens. Instead, the plans would provide a path to earning a green card for those who meet the criteria. Under current law, green-card holders receive the right to apply for citizenship after a number of years, but only if they can pass the English language and civics tests, among other requirements. 

The current debate has provoked some interesting questions about the value of citizenship for immigrants themselves and, by extension, the United States. Most of the arguments on either side have been moral or social, pitting issues such as the aversion to “rewarding lawbreakers” against the risks of creating a marginalized group of noncitizens who can never gain full membership in US society. But some economic questions arise too. In particular, naturalization is thought to provide economic benefits to the individual, including access to a wider range of good jobs. Does this mean that legalized immigrants will fare better if they have a path to citizenship? Will they be better able to support their families and move up through the U.S. labor market? 

A recent report from the Migration Policy Institute raises three issues worth bearing in mind in any debate about the value of citizenship. First, naturalized citizens appear to earn a wage premium of at least 5 percent compared to similar individuals who do not become citizens, according to empirical studies. In some ways, this is quite remarkable. Compared to holding a green card, the concrete economic rights stemming from citizenship are relatively limited. Certain government jobs and licensed professions require citizenship (the vast majority of immigrants holding public-sector jobs are naturalized); and some employers may prefer citizenship as a signal of good integration into U.S. society. If these factors are enough to provide a 5 percent wage boost, that would make citizenship a rather cost-effective way to improve immigrants’ economic outcomes.

  …naturalized citizens appear to earn a wage premium of at least 5 percent compared to similar individuals who do not become citizens, according to empirical studies.

Second, most of the economic benefit that immigrants can expect from legalization comes from legal status or the green card rather than citizenship itself. Moving from illegal status to permanent residence is almost certainly more beneficial to the individual than adjusting from permanent resident to citizen. Immigrants legalizing under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) received an estimated 6 percent wage boost by 1992. Since several studies suggest that increased post-IRCA worksite enforcement widened the gap between authorized and unauthorized workers, any such increase could be substantially larger today. Immigrants with education and English language skills stand to gain most from a purely financial perspective, since employers in higher-paying occupations are least likely to accept unauthorized workers on their books. But even for the majority who will never move up into professional jobs and may not see large wage gains, legal status provides basic freedoms such as the ability to move between employers, to organize or complain about labor violations, and to go to work in the morning without the threat of deportation.

 Immigrants legalizing under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) received an estimated 6 percent wage boost by 1992.

Third, even if a path to a green card for the unauthorized is introduced, many will never become citizens despite the potential benefits. More than 8 million lawful permanent residents are currently eligible to apply for citizenship but have not done so, for a variety of reasons including low English language proficiency, the cost required to apply, and concerns about losing one’s original citizenship. Less than half the immigrants who legalized under IRCA had naturalized by 2009. Naturalization rates are lowest among immigrants from Mexico, the major source of the unauthorized population. 

In other words, whether newly legalized immigrants actually become citizens is probably not the most important issue at stake. Citizenship matters for immigrants’ outcomes, but it is just one part of a puzzle that also includes the rights attached to any “probationary” status falling short of permanent residence, legalized workers’ access to a green card, and the broader efforts that are made to support immigrants’ integration—whether or not they eventually naturalize. For immigrants themselves, the stakes of what has become known as the “path to citizenship” will lie to a large extent in the rights and protections that they receive along the way whether or not they eventually become citizens.   RF

Madeleine Sumption is a senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan, independent think tank in Washington, D.C. that analyzes U.S. and international immigration trends and policy.

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